I now know it for sure. Painting this still life made it very clear: it wasn't an apple that got Eve and Adam into trouble in Paradise. That fruit of temptation had to have been a tomato.
Earlier this summer, as part of the BardSummerscape program, I saw a performance by the Pam Tanowitz Dance Company. The program began with a piece called Broken Story (wherein there is no ecstasy). I was struck by the bright white and silver light that filled the stage as the dancers danced. I wanted to do a painting that included that light.
Two of the "lead dancers" in my painting are glasses that my mother gave to me. They were given to her by her brother, my uncle, as a wedding present. This painting is a memory piece. Painting these objects, putting them down on canvas, is a way of preserving cherished memories, memories from long ago and from earlier this summer.
Sometimes, I read something so compelling that all I can do is hold my breath and reach for pen and paper. I write down the words for later savoring. What I read seems just right -- instant solidarity with the writer I am reading. My new best friend grapples with an issue that has long intrigued me. He or she promises to both clarity and deepen the issue.
The latest epiphany/reading encounter was with Edmund White and his review of Nela Pavlouskova's new book on the late paintings of Cy Twombly (see the special Art Issue of The New York Times Book Review, June 28, 2015).
The above image is from 2004, part of Twombly's Dionysian
series. It is acrylic and crayon on wooden panel and measures 98 3/8 by 74 3/4 inches.
What captured me most in White's essay is his description of how he came to see Twombly's uniqueness and intelligence over time. Early on, he was skeptical, didn't quite "get" what all the art critical praise of Twombly was about. But then, later, White looks beyond the canvases and even beyond the studio to form his own positive judgment of the painter's work.
When I visited his house and studio years ago in the Italian seaside town of Gaeta,
north of Naples, I was immediately struck (and reassured) by his exquisite and highly
personal taste evidenced in every room and every garden. Perhaps it was easier for me
to grasp his sensibility in the plain but refined choices he made in his surroundings
than in his huge, faux-naive paintings.
(italics are Suzanne's)
For White, Twombly's distinctive approach to art is in his home and gardens, not only in his studio. In fact, it is what Twombly chooses and does in his home and gardens that shapes White's appreciation of his paintings in the studio.
I am drawn to this view of what the painter does and where he or she does it. It helps me understand why it is that no matter how special a working space my studio is to me, I find myself sometimes compelled to wander out of the studio to do my work. The most important thing becomes to redo a flower bed, move around some furniture, or even plan a special menu for guests. Just like the edges of a canvas can rein in and constrict the painting the painter wants to paint, the walls of the studio sometimes need to be pushed open to make art happen. What happens outside the studio enables and supports what goes on in the studio. White shows that the important link between inside and outside the studio holds for both the painter and those who come to visit.
Here is a story about a painting that developed in a different way.
It started out in the usual way, the way other paintings had: I set up a still life with flowers.
Late spring/early summer flowers that I picked from my garden -- peonies, rhododendron blooms, and Siberian iris -- were the subject. I put them in a simple glass vase, and set it all on a cloth, on a table. I did a drawing in paint on the canvas and then a grisaille (working with just one neutral blue/grey color, I showed the darks, lights, and middle tones and created a three-dimensional effect on the canvas). I was off to a good, very familiar start. Me and my flowers in front of me.
Then, things moved onto a new track. I had to stop painting in my Pine Plains studio and spend a couple of days in New York City. When I returned, my lovely arrangement of flowers was dead. Yes, dead, no life in any of the flowers. I could have decided at that point to wipe out what I had and start a new piece from scratch, with a new still life arrangement in front of me. Yes, there were new flowers in the garden for picking. But I liked the drawing and I liked the grisaille and what it told me about what a final product in many colors of paint would look like. So, I decided to stay with the canvas I had begun. To continue the painting meant not painting what I saw in front of me, those flowers were not there anymore. Instead of painting real material objects as I typically do, I turned to painting what I remember seeing and paint how I remember feeling as I saw what I saw. Not being one to keep things simple, as I pondered this choice, I realized I had come up against the big question of staying a figurative realistic painter or moving into the realm of abstract painting. Oh my. Was this to be a serious attempt at an abstract painting, while it was just me, the easel, and the paints and brushes.?
Not quite. With the goal of turning what I had on the canvas into a painting to share with others, I felt I needed some friends around. I covered a work table with the images of paintings by two of my favorite painters of flowers, Manet and Nicolas de Stael. For those moments when my work was going in a realistic or figurative direction, I thought I could look over and get a nod from Manet. For my more abstract moments, I could rely on a smile from de Stael. Here is some of what inspired me.
And from Nicolas de Stael:
Here is what I have come up with:
I like to think this painting shows how I have been inspired by both of my favorite painters. Nonetheless, it is really a stretch to call it abstract in the de Stael sense. Yes, more of what I learn from Manet shows here. I couldn't resist the look and feel of those original flowers.
There are many views of what it means to do art that is political. Many arguments about what political art is, whether it can or should be done, whether any art could not be political. For me, a helpful approach to the controversial topic is offered by the wonderful artist, William Kentridge.
Kentridge says, "I am interested in a political art, that is to say an art of ambiguity, contradiction, uncompleted gestures and uncertain endings."
Franz Kline (1910-1962), an American painter and key figure in the Abstract Expressionist movement, had a wonderful way of answering that question. For him, it was all about giving.
Here is the quotation:
"You paint the way you have to in order to give. That's life itself, and someone will look and say it is the product of knowing, but it has nothing to do with knowing, it has to do with giving."
I like these words. There are days when the world seems to be one horror after another. Pain and suffering fill the pages of The New York Times. On those days, I feel I understand very little. I wonder whether I might not be doing something more useful than painting. Kline's words reassure. He puts the firmness back into my step as I walk to the studio, and the smile that I call my "painting glow" back on my face It can't hurt the world to be involved in giving. Who knows, if Kline is right, painting may somehow even help.
Kline is best known for his very large black and white paintings. Here is one.
What color! All week long, the small lake by our home in Pine Plains was a dull grey. It got interesting only when tossed by the strong winds that came with the rains. It looked more like winter than spring. But today, the sun shines again. The lake is a wonderful blue. Because of the color contrast (almost nothing beats yellow/yellow ochre/orange against blue), these planters just pop out. They certainly want to be planted, filled with flowers and some wonderful greens. Given the temperature will again drop into the 30s tonight, I will resist doing any planting now. But soon. These pots against the lake look just too good to remain empty.
This story begins with the image on the left. A photograph in the New York Times of a young man carrying a child out of the rubble of a bombed Syrian mosque stops my in my tracks (a). Of course, this isn't the first time I am stunned by a photo of recent, horrific events in the Times. It happens a lot these days. But this photo has a special pull. I do not turn the page; instead, I decide to make a painting inspired by the photograph. I take out my pencil, oil paints and brushes, and that special carton paper that I love to work on. The job is not about copying. It is about looking as hard as I can at the picture; and connecting with the people portrayed in order to recognize things like how that man felt in his shoulders, how he sensed the limp body of the boy in his hands, and what he thought about the child, the woman praying, and the others milling about. I put down on paper what I see and feel. The drawing and painting feel like a witnessing of events in Syria. The photograph demands this.
The little painting on the right is also inspired by the Times. But this time, there is a touch of hopefulness in the photograph that shows a Syrian refugee family fleeing Syria for Turkey (b). They hope the gate will open to what could be a new home. I am taken by all of the facial expressions -- apprehension, curiosity, optimism, exhaustion, peacefulness, tension. I love the way the child seems so secure in her mother's arms. She is able to stretch far out to see more of what is ahead for her. There is something very real here, but also something that seems so off. The photographer's camera distorts the scene, just like history seems to have distorted the lives of these people. I want to capture that distortion in what I draw, but I also want to get right the basic shapes of these people, the basic shape of humanity.
These photographs have their own distinctive power. They also have power gained through links with earlier art. I couldn't look at these photographs without thinking about earlier images of adults and children, earlier forms of the Pieta and Madonna and Child. I am sure those earlier forms influenced the contemporary photographers, consciously or unconsciously, as they took their pictures.
From the first day of working on these little paintings, I knew I had to display them in a way that would show links across time, across artists, across human experiences. The triptych form struck me as right, a triptych that would contain a version of an old painting. Triptychs are often meant to be devotional objects, meant to inspire meditation on the human condition. I think they also emerge from the artist's own process of meditation. My Syrian paintings became part of a group with my rendition of a Madonna and Child by the Venetian Renaissance artist, Giovanni Bellini, between them (c). There are many Renaissance Madonna and Child paintings, but this one with the baby Jesus so clearly prefiguring the dead Christ seemed especially fitting.
By the time I was working with the Bellini, Christmas was upon us. I turned the triptych into a piece to share during the holidays. While working, it was easy to remember those many, many Christmases ago, when as a very young girl, I copied the images on the Christmas cards that came into our home. My favorite cards to copy were those with angels and with the mother and child. Amazing how so much changes, and so much remains the same ...
(a) The photograph was taken in Aleppo by Zein Al-Rifai, Agence France Presse/Getty Images. It appeared in the February 5, 2014 issue of the New York Times.
(b) This photograph was taken at Turkish border by Ulas Yunus Tosun/EPA. It appeared in the September 22.2014 issue of the New York Times.
(c) There are many reproductions of this Bellini painting in books and on the internet. Looking across a number and seeing how they differed from one another, I wished I could see the painting "up close and in person." I searched the internet to find the current location of the painting.
Lo and behold, it is in New York, at the Metropolitan Museum. I dropped whatever I was doing, jumped on the subway, and stood and looked at the painting for as long as I needed to. The joys of living in New York City.
Below is a slideshow that gives a closer view of each part of the triptych.
Sorry. Much too much time has passed since I last wrote about changes in my Pine Plains studio. Months ago, there should have been a blog that happily announced that all renovations were complete and that I was hard at work on a new painting, in the new space. But there couldn't be: All renovations ground to a halt in October.
The painters had completed their work: The ceiling was now a bright white and the floor, a polished clean slab of cement. What remained to do was the installation of a skylight and new windows, a storage area, and a set of shelves over the workbench to hold canvases, both completed canvases and those waiting to be painted. But the carpenters and contractor didn't show. They were tied up on another, much larger project. Sadly, we had to leave the unfinished studio "as is," as we tucked the house in for the winter and headed south for full time life and work in the city.
But there will be spring. My contractor promises that all will be done well before we head north, from the city to Pine Plains, in April. I trust the work will get done and then I can become completely engaged in setting up the new studio. Reawakenings are right for the spring.
Here is a shot of the studio as it waits for me:
Is a Blank Studio like a Blank Canvas?
Here are a few photographs of the nearly empty studio. Yes, the empty studio, just like the blank canvas, is both a little scary and very exciting.
Feels hard to have the empty studio and to know it will never be the space it was. This studio was a wonderful collaborator for many years. I am sure that I need to make some changes, but I have come to love that dark place where it is often hard to see and there isn't proper storage. Letting go of that warm dark wood and the Bohemian disorder isn't easy. But I am, and now it is eagerness to start anew, make a new space, and see what paintings emerge there.
Lots has been written about the mystique of the artist's studio. Lovers of art make pilgrimage to sites like Cezanne's studio in Aix en Provence. They feel they will see and understand more of an artist's work if they stand where he or she did. Artists write about their studios as places they create to provide a home for their work. Their studios become self-portraits.
Here are just a few artists' quotations on their connections with their studios:
Bruce Nauman: "I was an artist and I was in the studio, so whatever I was doing in the studio must be art."
And the more romantic, Delacroix: "...the crucible where human genius at the apogee of its development brings back to question not only that which is, but creates anew a fantastic and conventional nature which our weak minds, impotent to harmonize it with existing things, adopt by preference, because the miserable work is our own."
And the more direct and slightly less intimidating words about his studio from a very old abstract expressionist painter: "Don't go in there. I have been making wild passionate love in there for fifty years. It is not pretty."